Same As It Never Was
How area musicians bend without breaking from Southern tradition
By Jordan Lawrence
Over the phone, Tripp LaFrance is the embodiment of the Southern male. His drawl is thick and gruff, worn ragged by frenetic performances as the singer for Columbia’s Say Brother. His band, which revs up bluegrass and old-time structures with furious blues-rock energy, has just played a post-game gig at the University of South Carolina’s homecoming football game. Like any good South Carolinian at a tailgate, he’s spent the afternoon tossing back Bud Lights and warns that intoxication may color the intensity of his answers.
A booze-fueled interview is fitting when you consider All I Got Is Time, the band’s rough-and-tumble debut. “Waitin’ on You to Call,” for instance, starts like a calm little back-porch jam. LaFrance cries about a girl that got away over driving guitar and banjo. Suddenly, drums and electric bass grab hold with a deep garage rock groove, and a wailing electric guitar enters. The solos tangle amongst aggressive acoustic strums, weaving to and fro in patterns more typical of a fiddle or mandolin. It’s decidedly Southern, drawing heavily from country and blues traditions, but the band grafts elements from each onto the other, arriving at a Frankenstein mix of old-time charm and modern rock aggression. It’s as much indebted to Bill Monroe as it is to Creedence Clearwater Revival, but it’s more energetic than either reference would suggest.
It’s a catchy technique, as intoxicating as a six-pack downed in the glaring Southern sun, but it’s far from revolutionary. National acts like Old Crow Medicine Show and Bright Eyes have won raves with similar tricks, and fellow Carolinians The Avett Brothers have made a mainstream splash with an amped-up bluegrass attack that operates in much the same way. But as LaFrance points out, Say Brother remains fresh because they invest so much of themselves in the music. Their songs resound with energetic conviction and heartfelt emotion.
“It’s just this same old E-A-B progression, and we put as much honesty in it as we can,” he says, noting how easy it would be to fall into the revivalist trap. “All that underground blues, country, rock & roll stuff, that shit is all the same. We do sound like a lot of it. But we’re not trying to blow everybody’s mind or step it up to some new fucking level. I’m just trying to incorporate everything that I like into one thing, you know? My way.”
Contending with traditions is a challenge that all musicians face, but it’s of particular importance for Southern artists. In a land where believers keep their Bible Belts tight and racial tension still rears its ugly head, musical traditions are held onto with vigor, too. The blues derive from the angst of black Southerners cornered by socioeconomic discrimination in the Postbellum era. Bluegrass began as the music of poor mountain dwellers, cobbling together makeshift instruments and passing down stories from generation to generation. Rock & roll was born in the South in the midst of the Civil Rights revolution, combining the music of different cultures into one defiant roar.
These styles connect to the area’s history in such profound ways that many take issue when artists put their own spin on them. That may be doubly true for non-native musicians who migrate here. As a result, figuring out how to move a tradition forward while still respecting its history is an issue that permeates — and sometimes inspires — the work of many musicians in the Carolinas.
“The South is also home to some of the most progressive people I’ve ever met,” contends N.C.-born experimental musician Jenks Miller. He recognizes that deep traditions can breed prejudices, but he insists that the challenge makes great Southern artists who they are. “If you’re living somewhere where that’s totally homogenized, then you never are sort of exposed to challenging ideas. You can call yourself progressive, but it’s because you’ve never been challenged. In the South, where you have to deal with all these conflicting ideas, you kind of develop this adaptability.”
Adaptability, it turns out, is one of Miller’s greatest strengths. He’s the mastermind behind Chapel Hill’s nationally acclaimed avant-metal project Horseback, but he also lays down the slow-burning guitar lines that help define Mount Moriah, one of the area’s best folk-rock outfits. In both, Miller displays an uncanny ability to explore space while maintaining gritty intensity, blurring the lines between minimalist experimentation and blues/folk traditions in the process.
Miller uses this technique to communicate a staggering array of moods. “Invokation,” the lumbering opener to Horseback’s 2010 LP The Invisible Mountain, melds a trio of bass and guitar into an oppressive march that’s shot through by Miller’s arresting snarl. In the background, there’s a heady, repetitive riff, a strungout simplification of a blues lick that bolsters the song’s dread-inducing atmosphere into something transformative.
“Plane,” one of the most devastating numbers on Mount Moriah’s transcendent debut, is powered by a similar guitar line. The song is a battered break-up ballad, throbbing purposefully atop a metronomic rhythm section as Heather McEntire lowers her voice to a rough but beautiful whisper. “It was the tone of your letters and the fit of herring-bone sweaters,” she recalls, her voice trailing off at line’s end. It’s here that Miller rips through softly, though solidly, his patient tones burning with bitter-sweet beauty, the aural essence of a newly formed scar. It has all the power of a Loretta Lynn tearjerker, but Miller’s fiery playing reforms it into a decidedly modern creation.
“These things are always evolving,” he says, highlighting his willingness to twist traditional elements into staggering new forms. “We can’t treat them like static forms. If we do, if we try and preserve them as the way they were at one moment in time, then they die. The breath of life leaves them.”
Miller says that his technique is a direct result of being raised in the South, pointing to Greensboro-born avant-garde pillar Harry Flynt as the inspiration for his linkage of modern minimalism with blues structures. But what of those Carolinas artists who were born elsewhere?
“I yearned for a place like the South that had an originality to it,” says Phil Cook, who modernizes folk and blues traditions with the experimental trio Megafaun, and hews closer to old-time styles with his solo project Phil Cook and His Feat. He and his bandmates relocated to the Triangle from Wisconsin in 2005.
“The source of American music is the South. The story was born there, everything that happens in our music. I’ve always thought that, and even before I moved here, that was the music that moved me. I longed for that place down here, this place.”
His affinity for the South and its music is clear on Hungry Mother Blues, his second outing under his one-man-band moniker. Keeping time with a kick drum, he picks his way through banjo and guitar instrumentals that work comfortably within accepted folk and blues forms. Still, Cook insists he isn’t limited by the rigid expectations many have for this kind of music. His first hero on the piano was balladeer Bruce Hornsby, and he says that inspiration continues to show through in his playing — even on the banjo.
Calling Cook’s song’s Hornsby-esque would be a stretch, but they resound with a sense of catchy pop tunefulness nonetheless. The title of Blues opener “Frazee, Minnesota” points back to Cook’s Midwestern roots, and the music is a prime example of his liberated approach. It’s a simple but entrancing two minutes of deftly executed slide guitar with a solidly Southern twang. But the melody it follows is punctuated by a repeated passage that operates like a pop hook, branding the brain to crop up later as a whistle or hum. This is traditional music that the casual music fan might find easy to love.
“The biggest thing that I really believe about music is that it is a force that is way bigger than we can actually comprehend as people,” he says, “and that trying to hold onto or tie down to anything is against the point of it all. If you’re open to being inspired by it, then you’re already carrying the tradition on.”
Cook is excited to play music in an area that allows this view of tradition, and he’s not alone. Caitlin Cary, one half of the Southern-tinged Raleigh pop act The Small Ponds, cites the anchored but free nature of tradition in the modern South as a key force in shaping her as an artist. An Ohio native, she’s been working at the juncture of indie pop and country for more than a decade, joining Whiskeytown in 1994 and recording a magnificently straight-shooting collection of honky-tonk duets with Thad Cockrell in addition to a litany of other solo albums and collaborations. She contends that the rich history of the South helped her reach a clarity in her musical voice she likely wouldn’t have found elsewhere.
“There’s something expansive and warm about making music here that feels like people hold each other up,” Cary asserts. “It’s true, a tradition holds it all up. People value what has come before, including what happened in Chapel Hill in the 80s. I think folks in the South might be more used to, or attuned to, a cohesion of tradition.”
This cohesive spirit has reared many artists — including the lion’s share of Cary’s collaborators. Still, as with any case of parent and offspring, there will always be growing pains. Take Raleigh’s Chatham County Line, whose 2010 album Wildwood was their finest to date. Started in 1999, CCL has become one of the most highly regarded bluegrass acts in the nation, but they ran into controversy when they decided to iInclude drums on several of Wildwood’s tracks, a big no-no among bluegrass’ more hard-line factions.
They were rockers first, and it shows through in their songs, catchy numbers that are just as beholden to Paul Simon and The Beatles as they are to Flatt and Scruggs. Far from backing away from this, the band will take another bold step forward with a 2012 live double LP of their holiday show, which features a set of traditional bluegrass and a just-for-fun amplified rock set.
“When we’re hanging out with pals drinking beers, somebody does pick up the drum sticks more often than the banjo,” singer/guitarist Dave Wilson explains. “It’s just really a natural progression of who we are.”
It’s a daring move, and it shines with the willful, independent spirit that defines musicians in the area that push their traditions forward. That’s really all this is about; the natural progression of musicians not just here but everywhere. It’s just that here in the Carolinas, musicians are so close to the wellspring that they end up creating tributaries of their own.